In the recession, are humans too expensive?

One of the things that I have been following over the past few months has been the effect of the recession on security and surveillance. One of the observations I have made is that those investing in security at this time are turning more and more to surveillance in preference to expensive human guards.

The Journal, the regional newspaper of the north-east of England (and my local paper), has a report today which seems to add more weight to this hypothesis, arguing that “the economic downturn, which has had a devastating effect on the construction industry, has led to a growing trend of companies cutting costs by replacing building site security guards with hi-tech CCTV systems”.

However, like the last time I reported on a similar story from Boston in the USA, there is perhaps less to it than meets the eye. The piece is another business section puff-piece for a local company, this time Newcastle-based UK Biometrics, largely a fingerprint ID outfit, on the basis that it is claiming “a 10-fold increase in enquiries for its sideline technology, CCTV cameras which can be accessed via remote devices”. It turns out that the suggested reason for this also comes from the company. This doesn’t make them incorrect, however I tend to treat all local business news stories with a certain degree of scepticism.

There is also a fundamental problem with the reasoning for such decisions, if they are indeed being made, which is one of the big issues with CCTV more generally, which is that cameras, even if they ‘work’ (and what that means is controversial enough), do not provide an equivalent service to a human guard. It is not necessarily a question of better or worse, it is just not the same. CCTV is also nothing if there is no response to the images that are seen. Without operators, analysts and people on the ground to act on the images, there is little point in even thinking that CCTV systems will ‘replace’ what a guard does. If only the machines are watching, there is only the illusion of security; an empty show.

Newcastle University CCTV comment

Not a million miles away from my office at Newcastle University, back in the UK, this stencil has appeared (“nothing to do with me, guv, I was in Brazil, honest…”)

Claremont Bridge, camera and comment (photo: Jon Swords)
Claremont Bridge, camera and comment (photo: Jon Swords)